What is This All About?

Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ is a project that involves both digitization and academic commentary on the Straits Chinese Magazine, a literary magazine published in colonial Singapore from 1897-1907 by a combination of Southeast Asian-born Anglophone Chinese subjects, European colonial writers and mixed-race Eurasian writers.

Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ documents how British colonial culture created a group of “Asian Victorians” in Southeast Asia through the establishment of a colonial intermediary class within the diasporic Chinese group known as the “Straits Chinese.” While the Straits Chinese had established roots in Southeast Asia from the seventeenth century, under British rule they became an important comprador class serving as mediators between the British and the rest of the Empire. Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ is an attempt to give voice and representation to formerly colonized subjects, and to attempt to work against the “imperial meaning-making” of the archive by implementing new types of reading and commenting technologies that disrupt the idea of dominant and subjugated knowledges.

Enter The Archive

To enter the archive, click our table of contents.

What is Our Mission?

For more information on our mission statement, please visit our page ‘Decolonizing the Archive.’

More Information: 

Sir Song Ong Siang

While the  “Straits Chinese” trace their history in Singapore and Malaysia back to the fifteenth century, they played a critical role in affirming colonial authority under the British, who from 1874 established a system of “indirect rule” over Malaya. This system involved the establishment of a privileged class of non-Europeans who would serve as intermediaries between the British and the general masses. The British found this privileged class both in the “Straits Chinese”, and in local Malay nobility. The “Straits Chinese” were ideally suited to function as a “comprador class” because they had developed a separate culture and identity from the local Malay inhabitants, and new immigrants to the region from China and India. As a class they enjoyed access to English education, positions within the new British civil service, and substantial business connections that were enough to create a solid mercantile class. Under British colonialism, the Straits Chinese experienced the tensions of being torn between two Empires: the Qing Empire, which was under siege with the multiple Opium Wars, and the British Empire, under which they were considered British subjects.

Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen’ focuses on the digitization and commentary from the “Straits Chinese” during this period, when they were colonized by the British and compelled to negotiate between two foreign competing empires.


For more information on the project or to contribute, please contact the project director Adeline Koh, Ph.D. at adelinekoh [at] gmail.com. Readers may also be interested in visiting our sister website, The Stockton Postcolonial Studies Project, an online magazine on postcolonial studies.

  1. Dr Ian Welch says:

    A very worthwhile venture and congratulations. I recall the concept of “Indian Englishmen” in India many years earlier but can’t recall the exact context. I think it was originally made by Macauley about creating a clss of people who were ethnically Indian but Englishmen in culture.

    Please let me know if I can be of help. My special interest is in
    English-speaking Protestant missionaries, if that opens a door for a contribution.

    Best wishes


  2. Philip Mead says:

    This is an intriguing subject that, to my knowledge, has been little explored. It would make a fascinating book and I dearly hope one will be forthcoming from the project at some future date. I have read extensively on the subject of the British Raj’s conscious efforts to nurture a (British) educated class of Indians who would cement British rule in 19th century India, but have found little by way of literature on Britain’s attempt to create an Anglo-oriented Straits Chinese elite. Dr. Welch is right in noting that T.B. Macaulay was instrumental in initiating the policy process for India – principally using the English language as a vehicle of imperial rule. One just wonders if such an official imperium policy operated in South East Asia. I look forward to following the project with great interest. And please, consider publishing a book at some point!

  3. Dr Ian Welch says:

    Professor Mead asks if Macaulayist thinking was prominent in SE Asia. I can’t comment directly but I think the Chinese are in a different category to the British-Indian desire to create an Anglophone Civil service class.

    If I can parallel the Anglophone situation in China itself, the rush was from Chinese anxious to learn English, primarily for commercial reasons. It is essential to keep in mind the enormous Chinese commercial links with SE Asia over many centuries. When the Brits took over the key trading ports of Malaya the need for Anglophone Chinese grew significantly. The great Australian example was Lowe Kong Meng, a leading Melbourne merchant (brought bananas among other things) who spoke perfect English and excellent French—his family were major traders with Mauritius.

    The first Anglo-Chinese College (Malaya) was intended to produce indigenous clergy/catechists for the London Missionary Society. It moved to Hong Kong and closed in the 1860s without producing a single ordained minister, although it did send a number of Chinese missionaries to the goldfields of California and Australia, but even then, some of the blokes preferred interpreting jobs rather than evangelistic work. Much the same story applied to St. Paul’s Anglican College in HK.

    St John’s (Episcopal) University in Shanghai reflected earlier decisions by the American Episcopalians to teach their original boys’ and girls’ schools only in English. By the turn of the 20C, the only Chinese instruction in St. John’s was in divinity, a tiny part of an enrolment that was otherwise overwhelmingly focussed on non-religious work.

    Of course, many Chinese Anglophones did find work with the Chinese Government. I think Frank DiKotter’s book amply deals with the status of English in the period between 1911 and 1952.

    My own experience of English-speaking capabilities in China is one of total admiration and profound sorrow for the state of Asian languages and cultures in Australia, but then our motivations have yet to come to terms with the “Asian Century.”

  4. Saul Fimbrez says:

    I really like your writing style, wonderful information, thankyou for putting up : D.

  5. This is an incredibly important addition to our knowledge base around the effects of colonialism on culture and on knowledge transfer. I know I’ve learned a lot from reading the archived scans from Straits Chinese Magazine, and I imagine that most visitors will feel similarly.

    Although there are of course issues around access to online media (cf Michelle Moravec), I think that digitizing this resource and making it freely available – not to mention using an SEO-friendly CMS to build the surrounding site, and promoting the work via social media channels – is the best way to disseminate it effectively. Which is of course a major purpose of a project like this!

    Please keep it up!

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